Regional connectivity ‘can help achieve faster economic growth’

Regional connectivity, particularly in the eastern part of South Asia, can help achieve faster economic growth in the region, speakers at a seminar said Thursday in the capital.

They stated that the private sector could play a significant role in promoting regional cooperation, including trade and commerce, through establishing roads, waterways and railways connectivity between and among Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India, particularly the latter's northeast seven states.

Their observations came at the seminar titled, "Prosperity and Growth: Through Regional Co-operation", organsied jointly by Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) at the Pan- Pacific Sonargaon hotel in Dhaka.

The President of the MCCI, Major Gen (retd) Amjad Khan Chowdhury delivered the address of welcome at the seminar.

Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni was present as the chief guest on the occasion.

Terming the government and the businesses as partners, the foreign minister said: "The present government has put a befitting emphasis on strengthening and deepening relations with our neighbours so that we may exploit the synergies for mutual benefit".

"We, in Bangladesh, must think about our excellent geographic location and utilise this for the benefit of the peoples around us in addition to that of our people," she said, adding "connectivity should not, however, be limited to physical connectivity only. It should be cultural and ideas, too".

She has said Bangladesh sees opportunities in South- South cooperation, that is, countries with similar level of socio-economic development and their immediate neighbours.

"The government is currently undertaking an exercise to put in place a comprehensive framework for providing access to Nepal, Bhutan and India through Bangladesh. This access may be made by using the ports of Mongla and Chittagong for export/import from the third countries and it may also provide the access to the remote states of northeastern India," the foreign minister mentioned.

"The access may be extended through Myanmar and Thailand to other countries of Southeast Asia and beyond. We are also working on strengthening shipping linkages with Sri Lanka and the Maldives," Dr Dipu Moni said.

She said that intra-regional trade in South Asia is mostly hampered by poor infrastructure and lack of facilities at the land ports and land customs stations which increase the cost of products.

She stressed the need for the development of facilities at the land customs stations that will play a vital role in gearing up regional trade.

The MCCI President Maj Gen (retd) Amjad Khan said South Asia, particularly its north east sub-region, is one of the least connected as well as the poorest regions of the world. This region includes Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, parts of India, Myanmar and parts of China. This vast region is inhabited by over one quarter of the world's population.

He has said the efforts from the highest authorities of these countries are now focused on establishing regional multi-modal connectivity through transborder roadways, railways and waterways, while looking forward to setting up mechanisms and infrastructures for common use of land ports and sea ports.

"The political partition of the subcontinent in 1947 did not need to turn into an economic partition. This distancing over a period of more than half a century between what was previously one integrated region has caused incalculable loss of economic vitality. Bangladesh lost a huge market and source of investment and mobility of goods and people," said the MCCI president.

He noted being small and landlocked economies like Nepal and Bhutan did not receive due importance until very recently. But things are now changing, he added.

"Economic integration and cooperation among South Asian countries should be conceived within the framework of regional economic integration, where all natural and environmental resources, facilities and opportunities should be utilised for the benefit of all countries in the region," he mentioned.

"Political commitment and policy continuity are imperative for establishing effective regional transport connectivity/ transit. Building up of public opinions is important to ensure policy continuity. Consultation with all stakeholders, including private sector, civil society organisations and media is also important," he mentioned.

Taking part in the discussions at the seminar, former adviser to the immediate past caretaker government, Dr ABM Mirza Azizul Islam said there are formidable hurdles to regional cooperation and "we must take realistic steps".

He said private sector can play an important role in enhancing regional trade.

Executive Director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Prof Mostafizur Rahman said the connectivity in the region should be a win-win situation for all the countries concerned.

He said the transit fees should be in line with the international rules and regulations.

The Director General, South Asia Department of ADB, Sultan Hafeez Rahman presented the keynote paper on "ADB's Regional Cooperation Programmes in South East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia" at the seminar.

Senior ADB officials of South Asia Department, Sona Shrestha and Cuong Minh Nguyen presented the keynote paper on "Trade facilitation: Broad Concepts and the Case of South Asia".

Sultan Hafeez Rahman said Bangladesh government and ADB documents estimate a total project cost of US $ 6.45 billion to finance 22 projects including 2,000 kilometres of land transport network and eight rail links under sub-regional transport framework.

The MCCCI committee member Kamran T Rahman also presented the keynote paper on "Role of Bangladesh Private Sector in Enhancing Regional Cooperation in South Asia".

He said, "Bangladesh should undertake pro-active steps to transform herself into a regional transit hub by utilising its strategic geographic location, developing the required infrastructure and facilities and pursuing regional framework agreement, based on authentic cost-benefit analysis".

Florian A Alburo of Centre for the Advancement of Trade Integration and Facilitation 249 School of Economics University, Diliman, Quezan city of the Philippines presented the keynote paper on "Cross Border Trade Experiences and Best Practices".

Senior energy specialist of South Asia Department of ADB Priyantha DC Wijayatunga presented the keynote paper titled "South Asia Regional Cooperation: Energy" at the seminar.

Director of South Asia Department of ADB Mr Sekhar Bonu made concluding observations.

The Secretary of the MCCI, Farooq Ahmed offered vote of thanks at the function.

FBCCI adviser Manjur Ahmed and former banker Mamun Rashid, among others, took part in discussions.